News & Features

Two Terrifying Words: Market Price

January 09 2012 - 12:02 PM

It's an etiquette issue that arises with some frequency at high-end restaurants: After a server has recited the day's specials for you, do you pipe up and ask how much they cost? One NYC diner is really wishing he had. The man in question, who sought help from The Haggler column in the New York Times, ordered a special truffle pasta at notoriously pricey Nello only to find out, once the bill came, that the dish's undisclosed price tag was $275. Hopefully, those were the best truffles of his life. The unfortunate incident begs the question: Should servers announce the price of specials as they recite them, or do diners need to get over their quiet politeness and just ask?

There are a lot of factors at play in this situation, namely issues of etiquette, custom, and economics. We'll start with etiquette. When dining in a high-end restaurant, customers buy into a bit of illusion. The restaurant should treat a diner like the king or queen for the duration of the meal, regardless of whether he or she can afford to eat there every week or just once a year. In return, customers should be gracious, polite, and respectful of the servers and kitchen. Still, the pleasantries should not be intimidating. Diners should not be afraid to make requests that would improve the quality or comfort of the meal, and that includes a straight-forward "And what is the price of the pasta special?"

Now we'll tackle custom. It's fairly common to see "Market Price" in reference to seasonal ingredients like oysters, soft-shell crabs, and yes, truffles. While that saves the restaurant from reprinting the menu each day as the price of those items fluctuates by a dollar or two, it shouldn't be a veil behind which lurks an exorbitant price gouge. The servers should know what market price is in dollars, and diners shouldn't hesitate to ask about it if they have a suspicion that the lobster could be double the price of any other dish listed on the menu. This way, diners make informed decisions, and can properly enjoy a luxurious meal without a nagging fear that they'll have to mortgage their home to afford it.

Lastly, economics. Some diners can afford fine dining restaurants all the time, and they're looking to supplement their meals with the caviar service or fresh shaved truffles. Other diners may be there for an anniversary or graduation celebration, and will likewise throw a bit of monetary caution to the wind. But more likely, patrons saved up and/or made sacrifices to afford the dinner, and are expecting a certain price point. While the restaurant must treat them the same way as the Daddy Warbucks clients, they must also, with tact and grace, not make the table feel awkward for wanting to know whether the lobster costs $60.

This comes down to honesty. Customers and servers should treat each other with mutual respect, but not of the artificial kind. At the end of the day, both groups are people, with budgets, jobs, and a desire to have the meal progress smoothly. As elementary school teachers are want to say, the only dumb question is the one that goes unasked.